What Is Transjournalism?
Making the Case for Storytelling Across Diverse Platforms
“I’m so tired of explaining what I do, that from now on I’m just going to call myself a transjournalist.” — Tim Hetherington, 2010.
Just to be clear, Tim was half-joking. He was a visionary storyteller, and he didn’t see much value in labels.*
But five years and multiple projects later I still can’t think of a better word to describe the direction I have taken along with many talented and courageous storytellers, fellow editors and producers.
Most of us come from backgrounds in traditional photojournalism and broadcasting media but as we evolved together and embraced film, installation, bookmaking and interactivity, among other things, we refused to accept the ‘Death Of Photojournalism’ narrative. Nor would we be discouraged by the decline of the editorial market. Instead, we saw changes in the industry as opportunities for experiment. We ventured into neighboring disciplines and forms to collaborate with filmmakers, artists and curators.
After much experimentation and blind-folded risk-taking came the wave of new and exciting visual documentary — storytelling based on the visual that goes beyond the media delivery system or completely surpasses it.**
Visual documentary can reach more diverse and wider audiences and make a difference, if not in policymaking, then in people’s lives and perceptions.
These stories can arrive in the format of public art or a feature film or a book but often go beyond one product or form of communication. These stories involve outreach and community engagement, working from the subject matter outward and engaging pre-existings audience already attached to the issue.
Today´s most interesting image-makers work across media platforms and markets. At the core of this approach to visual storytelling is the intersection of “new media” (interactive, data, games) and “old media” (audio, photography, video, book, installation).
The variety of multimedia and cross-media formats typical of transjournalism includes, but is not limited to, condensed short linear videos, interactive web documentaries, virtual reality projects, multi-channel video installations and collaborative public art projects. The content is produced by freelance journalists and independent producers, interactive production studios — medium-sized production companies (MediaStorm, Bombay Flying Club, Upian) and corporations, national and international broadcasters (Arte, National Film Board of Canada). The work is distributed through editorial, broadcasting, film and VOD markets, and can be custom-produced to fit museum, festival, issue campaign and public spaces.
In most cases, the traditional media is simply not equipped to deal with long-form storytelling that incorporates multiple formats and media, instead staying the hostage of its format and self-imposed limitations.
I encounter a great many journalists and photographers with fantastic, rich material and access who get stuck trying to deliver their stories to audiences. They are busy surviving professionally and are increasingly confused by terminology — multimedia, transmedia, cross platform and whatever else comes along next week. As a result, they lose sight of what is most important, the story. Contemporary relevant storytelling is not all about interactivity, usability and scalability.
Forget about categorizing the work you are doing. Leave that to critics and academics. Anchor your work in subject matter, a sense of whom it might interest, and the perspective you are bringing to it with your work. This is your starting point. This is your inception. Look around you.
Who is already working with this issue professionally — government institutions, NGOs, festivals, grass roots organizations, communities? What are they communicating about the issue and how are they formulating their message? What works best for your story? Think about context. Work with communities, engagement, and co-participants and other modalities made possible by the Internet.
To work effectively in this mode often requires teaming up with cinematographers, coders, film editors, directors, audio engineers, photo editors, curators, creative directors and producers who provide skills and insider knowledge of other media industries. Think collaboration.
Think about how to produce stories across platforms and involve the communities and audiences who might be interested. Developing stories for multiple platforms increases the chances for them to be seen and generate income, delivering stories to each audience group in a familiar format. Prioritize platforms that serve your story best, not tools that are considered more ‘sellable’.
Don’t get hung up on labels and don’t despair. It is important to remember that the concept of a non-linear storyline or breaking the narrative into fragments to be told and packed into various shells is not new. Transmedia has been around forever. Think back to telling stories or fairy tales around the fire and then reading them in a book.
We are all revisiting this concept now thanks to the entertainment industry that has taken it to the next level — between Game of Thrones and The Newsroom there’s a lot to pay attention to. The film, gaming and popular culture folks are far ahead of we documentarians and artists, but that is because they have a bigger playground and more resources with which to experiment, and certainly not because their stories are any better or worthy than ours.
Good stories transcend platform — users will read, listen or watch, if you have something to say.
*Tim Hetherington (1970–2011) was a photographer, filmmaker and a visual communicator. For more information about Tim and his legacy visit timhetheringtontrust.org
**For reference on New Visual Documentary and project examples, check out the DocuBase playlist I curated for MIT Open Documentary Lab’s online library of experimental visual storytelling. There are 17 other playlists by accomplished storytellers, producers and curators and a couple of hundred projects to explore.